MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte lashed out anew at the United States on Tuesday and said it could forget a bilateral defense deal if he stayed in power long enough, in the latest jarring statement from Manila about the future of the alliance.
The fresh broadside from Duterte came as he was about to board a plane for an official visit to fellow U.S. ally Japan, a big investor in the Philippines that is becoming nervous about its apparent pivot towards rival power China.
The volatile, crime-busting Duterte had on the eve of the visit softened his remarks last week about a “separation” from Washington, telling Japanese media he wasn’t planning to change alliances and was only seeking to build trade and commerce with China.
But he pulled no punches on Tuesday when he said he hated having foreign troops in the Philippines and told the United States not to treat his country “like a dog with a leash”.
Commenting on a visit to Manila on Monday by Daniel Russel, an Assistant Secretary of State, Duterte said Washington should forget about an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the Philippines if he were to stay in charge longer.
“You have the EDCA, well forget it. If I stay here long enough,” he said. “I do not want to see any military man of any other nation except the Filipino. That’s the only thing I want.”
He did not elaborate on what staying longer meant. In the Philippines, a president is allowed only one six-year term in office.
The remarks were another perplexing swing from Duterte, who last week announced in China his “separation” from the United States, before assuring that ties were not being severed and he was merely pursuing an independent foreign policy.
His latest swipe at Washington could rattle Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wants to keep ties with the Philippines tight.
In a composed reading of a statement prior to departure for Tokyo, Duterte described Japan as a true friend that had played a “preeminent and peerless role” as a big investor and Philippine development partner.
‘I DIDN’T START THIS FIGHT’
But he quickly became vexed when answering questions and held up the front page of a Philippine newspaper which carried the headline “Duterte sparking international distress – U.S.”.
Duterte vented at Washington on several fronts, from its bombings of Manila at the end of World War Two to embassy officials once questioning his intentions when he applied for a visa to visit a girlfriend.
“You know, I did not start this fight,” he said of the spat with Washington.
His overtures to China and hostility toward the United States have raised questions about what Duterte’s overall goal is and the extent to which his actions could shake up the geopolitical dynamic of a region wary about Beijing’s growing influence and U.S. staying power.
Abe has sought to strengthen ties with the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries, particularly Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, as a counter-balance to Beijing.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Tuesday said both presidents would have a meeting to “further the strategic partnership with the Philippines”.
It is unclear where Duterte’s latest diatribe leaves U.S.-Philippines ties. Russel had left Manila in confident mood and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had expressed optimism the two countries could “work through” a period of confusion caused by Duterte’s remarks last week.
Duterte has railed against U.S. expressions of concerns about the high loss of life in his campaign against drugs and Washington’s calls for due process.
Japanese officials said Abe would not overtly try to mediate between Tokyo and Washington but would probably explain the importance of the U.S. role in the region.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida will meet Duterte on Tuesday for a low-key dinner, and Abe will hold rare one-on-one talks with Duterte at his residence in Tokyo the next evening following a larger, more formal meeting with senior officials.
(Additional reporting by William Mallard and Tim Kelly and Kiyoshi Takenaka in TOKYO and Neil Jerome Morales in MANILA; Editing by Lincoln Feast)